Review by David Baldwin for Mr. Will Wong
Nearly a year after its international premiere at Hot Docs, Obit is finally returning to Toronto. Documentarian Vanessa Gould profiles current and former obituary writers at The New York Times as they explore the challenges and immense research that goes into writing these news stories.
It may sound ghastly, but Obit is fascinating from beginning to end. As a student of journalism, I marveled at this celebration of obituary writing as an art form. Hearing these writers talk about their average work day is both enlightening and humourous despite the macabre subject matter. While watching the daily grind of obituary writing is less than thrilling, the content remains interesting and unique throughout (minus the lame jokes about coffee breaks). Gould also employs archived news footage and articles about the writers’ subjects to help the audience truly understand the extensive research they perform before they even start to write. We may not know much about the deceased people these writers discuss, but the Film does a terrific job showing why their contributions in life mattered.
While the material gets dry in some areas, the real criticism I have of Obit is that the focus never strays from the writing and its subjects. Gould only touches briefly on the difficulty of writing relevant newspaper stories in the digital age – never stopping to mention Twitter’s impact once – and does not really describe who these writers are outside of work. They joke about the reactions they get from people at parties asking what they write about, but no one really spends any time discussing the influence writing about death has on themselves and their families. I know the Film only runs 93-minutes, but both of these areas seem like missed opportunities for thought-provoking insight.
Obit may not prove compelling to everyone, but anyone with an interest in news writing will be very intrigued by Gould’s documentary. Obituary writing is a nearly extinct medium, but getting to hear the stories and see the effort that goes into creating them gave me a new found appreciation for the form. It even gave me some ideas on how to jazz-up my own writing, which is more than enough reason for me to recommend it.
Blue Ice Docs release OBIT for one-week only at the TIFF Bell Lightbox starting Friday, March 31, 2017.
Director Vanessa Gould, Producer Caitlin Mae Burke and New York Times Writer Margalit Fox will be present for an Introduction and Post Screening Q&A at the 7 PM screening this Friday!